Adrianne Lenker is here for the journey. On rare breaks in her touring schedule, she travels. It’s a willing itinérance that confirms the singer-guitarist’s rapport with the unknown. “I’ve become very translucent,” she says. “I allow things to pass through me, rather than feeling them hit me, like a defense mechanism.”
Her band Big Thief has built their reputation on a transcendent live show, where the boundaries between performer and audience evaporate in the wake of Lenker’s vulnerability, words sprouting from her harrowing and beautiful depths. The folk-steeped indie-rock quartet has toured relentlessly since their 2016 debut Masterpiece and its 2017 follow-up Capacity became hits for Saddle Creek, playing hundreds of shows across North America, Europe, and Australia.
“I’m living out of my truck,” Lenker explains. Speaking from that vehicle, parked outside a café in Los Angeles, Lenker explains that life without a permanent home is freeing, but also has its drawbacks. “I’m driving this truck, and it’s a gas guzzler,” she says. “If I could afford it, I’d get an electric car, and I’ve been thinking about converting this one.”
The band’s third album, U.F.O.F., marks their debut for indie stalwart 4AD. Recorded with longtime producer Andrew Sarlo at Bear Creek Studios near Seattle, the record showcases the locked-in nature of the band whose communal instinct has been honed by the intimacy of its live show, and the tacit bonds formed from an aggressive touring schedule. Capturing this spirit was essential in the recording process, and the band largely played live in a cozy, rustic room.
“When I bring my little ceramic mug made by my friend into the coffee shop, and ask them to please put the coffee in there, I feel more myself. It’s little things, like turning off the water when I’m brushing my teeth.”
“There’s always some element of that alchemy of us playing together in real time, rather than stacking everything,” Lenker says. “It’s important. When a band is actually playing together you can feel it in the recordings.” Though U.F.O.F. is sharp in its instrumentation—drums, bass, and guitars passing through one another with a patterned fluidity—it also exudes spontaneity. Ambient sounds and textures punctuate the songs, and Lenker’s vocals growl and skitter.
There’s an unexpected bite when she sings the phrase “screaming sound” on the fourth track, “From” (a song that also appeared on Lenker’s 2018 solo album abysskiss). The heart-rending enunciation poured out unexpectedly, and was a point of discomfort at first. “I’ve been practicing trusting the band, even to the point where I don’t always choose my vocal takes,” she says. “Even if I don’t like something, I let go of it if the collective thinks that it’s good. I’ve realized that I’m not a good judge of my own singing.”
Though her life isn’t tethered to possessions, there are aspects of keeping a home that she misses. “I imagine that if I lived in one place I would have a compost toilet, and would be gardening and cooking my meals, and biking around a lot,” she says. She’s also not remiss about the volume of disposable wares commensurate with life as a working musician. “It’s a pretty wasteful industry that we’re a part of, even making records,” she says. “All the paper products and fliers and water bottles and driving. Not to mention when you play festivals, there are all these products that are offered to you.”
This macro view of the music industry can feel staggering, so for now Lenker is focused on more easily attainable and conscious decisions when it comes to avoiding waste. “When I bring my little ceramic mug made by my friend into the coffee shop, and ask them to please put the coffee in there, I feel more myself,” she says. “It’s little things, like turning off the water when I’m brushing my teeth.” Though it can be easy to abandon these principles when rambling from green room to green room, she feels more grounded when honoring them. “I feel part of the earth in some small way,” she adds. “You can ignore these tiny thoughts, or you know, you can turn off the lights when you leave the room. The small things are really important.”
This spring, Lenker begins playing in support of U.F.O.F., marking the start of fifty tour dates at mid-sized clubs and European festivals stretching into November. She’ll have only July and September off to recharge, and admits that this amount of travel and outpouring of physical and emotional expression can be depleting—but to her, it’s mostly a blessing and an opportunity to connect.
“The only way we can do this is to try to knock walls down with our music,” she says. It’s in this open posture, on the road and in performances, that she’s found her greatest sense of self. “That’s Big Thief in a nutshell,” she says. “We’re digging through all these layers that separate us.” FL